09:00 - 24 May 2002
A vital centre which offers victims of multiple sclerosis a chance to have a holiday is set to close because the charity which runs it plans to sell the property to developers.
The Orcombeleigh Care Hotel in Exmouth will shut in July after 30 years service because the MS Society, which owns the building, claims that it costs too much money to keep it going.
Staff were shocked when it was announced that the MS Society had recommended that the centre should be closed and the building sold off.
A member of staff, who did not want to be named, said the centre felt "betrayed by the society".
"We're all devastated that the centre could close," she said. "It is unique in the Westcountry because it provides for families and friends as well as sufferers.
"Now sufferers will have to travel up to five hours in cars and coaches to other centres in other parts of the country. It's just not on."
She added that the staff felt the MS Society was deliberately closing the centre to make money out of its prime location.
"We strongly feel that the MS Society is thinking that it could profit out of selling this beautiful place," she said.
Orcombeleigh could be worth up to £1 million, but despite fears that a secret deal had already been hatched between the MS Society and developers, East Devon District Council said it had not received any planning applications from outside companies regarding the property.
What will follow is a consultation process between the MS Society and members of staff before a final decision is made in July.
But the feeling in the centre is that it is already too late to save it.
A member of staff said yesterday: "I fear that the MS Society has already made up its mind and this is a great shame.
"It's not fair on the guests who pay to stay here, or their families who also come here for a break."
As well as Orcombeleigh, the MS Society is planning to close a second respite centre in West Sussex.
Despite the angry reaction to the plans, the MS Society yesterday defended its decision, claiming that funds needed to be allocated to other areas.
Mike O'Donovan, the society's chief executive, said: "The home is operating well below capacity and we have a commitment to focus resources on high standards of care for people who are very severely affected by MS."
He added that the biggest factor was cost. "To comply with the Government's new national standards for care homes, we would have to spend £560,000 in the next year alone to upgrade the facilities and we would have to reduce the number of beds by half," he said.
Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon, said he would be taking up the centre's plight with Health Secretary Alan Milburn.
"It is a worrying trend that the new standards for care which come out of Europe are being interpreted by civil servants in such a draconian way," he said.
He added that many of the new standards were "unachievable".
"Of course care homes should be subject to visits by independent inspectors to ensure that patients are being looked after, but a balance needs to be made," he said.
In a bid to save the centre, the various local MS Society branches are joining together to express their outrage at the plans.
Jackie Harvey, chairman of the Sidmouth branch, said: "A lot of our members are very upset and feel as though the MS Society in London has kicked them in the teeth.
"I for one am disgusted at their decision."
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